Artist Focus: Jessica Ekomane
When did you first become aware of Max?
It was after I arrived in Berlin seven years ago. I started studying in sound studies, which is at the University of Arts Berlin. And one of the teachers at the time was Robert Henke.
Also, later I attended a few lessons with Miller Puckette because he was teaching at the Technical University in Berlin. And so that was really interesting to see how the actual mind that created Max makes a patch. It was really inspiring. I mean, it's really different for me because he has this Ph.D. in mathematics, and you could really see it in the way he thinks. He's really clear and really simple. I really like that.
Unreal, that’s quite an introduction to Max!
While in sound studies, we were supposed to do a project for Wave Field Synthesis, for CTM. For this, Robert Henke had us build a interface using Max to interface with the Wave Field Synthesis, create objects, and so on. Basically, he said, "Okay, you have one month. Do it." – which was really challenging.
Yeah, I bet.
This was a good introduction to how Max works, and the study of objects and sending messages to an object to make it to do something. So this is how I started.
I never really learned it at university, though. The way I really learned was always project-based – so I learned it by myself, sometimes doing the tutorials as well. And, I think, after this I liked working with this Wave Field Synthesis project, so this was a start for me to think about sound in terms of space. Then I thought, "Okay, these two somehow seem to fit with my mind. I'm able to do something with them, so I should keep on doing that."
Were you already working in sound when you relocated from France to Berlin?
Not at all. I moved to Berlin seven years ago. And before that, I was not really doing sound. I mean, I was always a music nerd somehow and I was always really interested in experimental music too. But the thing is that there is no real experimental scene where I'm from [Tours, France]. Right.
Or there is place where – once a year, maybe – you can get to see experimental electronic music. But otherwise, there were also not really – for example – a specialized music store where you can start to speak with the person that knows something about this and you can have an exchange. Luckily, at some point when I was younger, we started to have personal computers. I discovered the world of online forums. And, with that, websites doing reviews of really obscure music, and then – of course – peer-to-peer sharing.
Oh yeah, I remember peer-to-peer sharing. So I could get access to all this stuff that I didn't know where to find otherwise. I wouldn't have bought them because I wouldn't have known what the music was and I didn't have the money.
Actually, I remember hearing about Max at this time because I always heard, "Oh, these people do this music using Max." So I tried to download it peer-to-peer.
Argh, you downloaded your first version of Max on P2P ? It was a really old version – I just wanted to see how it was. And I got scared because it was just this blank page. I thought, "I need engineering knowledge or mathematical knowledge to start." That wasn't the case, but I never knew that then and didn't have anybody to exchange with, so I kind of forgot about this for a few years before coming back to it. Were there any particular artists that come to mind that you discovered in experimental music on P2P? I didn't discover that through peer-to-peer but Alva Noto came to play in my city, and for me that was really new. Because in terms of aesthetic, it's really dry and really German, really minimalistic. That’s quite an introduction to have, Alva Noto, wow!
I think that we are a little bit more poetic or whatever in France, doing association and the like. For me, what Alva Noto was doing was really new. Also, it was mainly the audiovisual experience.
So that was really when I thought, "Okay, this is really cool. I need to do that. I need to know how to do this."
Yeah. But I think that even before this, I knew I wanted to do it. I actually come from a rather small village [Touraine], and I learned to play piano in the small music school there. I always wanted to play something else than what was taught. I wanted new tastes. Then, one day my teacher brought me Ligeti. Yes, György Ligeti.
You know Ligeti?
For me, it was a really big shock to discover this music. I never knew that you could do this with a piano. It felt somehow that it was the first way to think about music in terms of sound and not anymore in term of notes, you know?
And I could feel that. Because his work is really influenced by his discovery of electronic music as well. Yeah, I think this was also a first step towards this kind of way of thinking.
And so, did you start... You started making music before you moved to Berlin, right?
No, I started in Berlin actually.
I didn't really dare to do that before, somehow. I always wanted to, but I was not in the right environment.
And when you moved to Berlin, that was to study, correct?
Yes, but when I was in France, I started to study Art History. So I moved to actually do my Masters in Art History for six months with Erasmus. I don't know if you know this program.
No, I don't. It's a European program for study abroad. I was supposed to do this study exchange for six months, but then I stayed because it was so inspiring here. And this is when I started to discover the club culture, because there is no club culture where I am from.
That is what’s special in Berlin. I mean, you have places like Berghain, for example, where they play not only minimal techno, but there is also a place for experimental music – a lot of experimental electronic music.
So I got really into it. And I was really impressed by the whole experience – I mean, not only the music, but also in term of senses: sights, the atmosphere, darkness. And I also met people with whom I could talk. And I was telling them, "Okay, I want to do this. But I have never done this and I don't know how to do it." I felt that people were pretty open here – they told me, "Yeah, but just come and have a look and then you can figure it out by yourself." This is basically what happened over the years.
Right. Berghain is quite world-renowned.
Actually I played there in January. It was really great. It was really a special moment for me. ...and they have a great sound system.
Yeah, they have the Function 1, and I think they manage to tune it well. It's really important, it's not only about the brand.
Yeah, and it's really great, for my music at least because the frequency spectrum is quite rich and it also reveals its full dimension when played loud.
Right now, my live performances are in quadraphonic sound and I've started to work with rhythm and – although what I do is not club music – I think, at the end, I've been also a bit influenced by this whole Berghain club experience. So, it was really great to hear it on those speakers.
Tell me a little bit about how you patch in Max. What are the things in Max that help you create your sound?
This is difficult question. My process is really exploratory, I make use of a lot of mistakes in what I'm doing. For example, when I started to work on this quadraphonic project with rhythm, I discovered new objects and then I'm gonna try to see what is possible to do with it and from there I try to work on something. Sometimes, I understand from the beginning what it's about and I'm trying to exploit this as a way to let go of too much logical reasoning, and in an attempt to go in a different direction than the one you are typically supposed to go with the objects somehow. For example, I mentioned the four channel project – I was working with this rhythm and then when you sent zero hertz to this object, you get a click. And I was interested to work with this and actually reuse the clicks as rhythmic elements. Because you know most of the time you don't want to hear the hear the click, such as when a sample is looping, for instance. But you can use it as a rhythmical element. This was the start of this project. And it's a lot of trying and looking around to see, to reach interesting sounds. So I don't really have a method all the time, but I know that I am trying to always limit myself.
Always trying to build patches that are as simple as possible, to try to stay focused on the concept and not get lost in technical aspects of it.
For me it's important to have this limitation – when you start with a blank page, it can be a little bit intimidating somehow.
I listened to some of your older works from a few years ago. One that really stands out for me; I really like the drone track 'To Whoever Shall Inherit the Earth.' I love that track. Tell me a little bit about the process of making that track. You know, was it just one take? Or was it designed in a way?
Yes, the recording of it in the state it is now was actually one take. I started because one of my first personal projects with Max was trying to build a sampler so I could just load a sound and then I could just scrub through the sound as much as I wanted to. And I had this kind of library or archive of sounds from a previous project I did with some sounds of orchestra rehearsing. So, this is what I used. It was a little bit of an apparition – this track – somehow. I had been searching for months and months for the best way to use this system that I built. And then suddenly I loaded this sound and it just worked right away.
And so the way it's built is that, basically, digging through the sample and trying to reveal some other faces of the song that you don't hear directly at the beginning and I like this idea that...
You know, the sound of the orchestra is always this really beautiful and really harmonic sound. And I think in my work, in general, I always try to make the beautiful things a little bit dirty.
Like I was telling you – using the clicks, for example. Something that is not supposed to be beautiful but used it in an aesthetic way.
I'm always striving for that.
What is it about those aspects of sound – like the things that we are not supposed to use, or the things that we strive to get rid of – that you like using? Why is it those things?
Well, in this case, saturation. Even though saturation is used a lot in music nowadays like noise etc. But I think I like more, let's say, contrast, because if you add saturation on a sample that is really clean, like piano or something like this, then it takes another dimension.
Also, as I said, the clicks, for me, are the most clear thing in this. For a new track, I also started to work with retuning really harmonious material in a way that brings out dissonances, for instance. This brings some sort of tension and makes your ear slightly uncomfortable in an interesting way.
Right now I'm starting to work or research about alternate tunings.
So actually, this is how I discovered that, for this one rhythmical track that I'm talking about, I ended up using my own tuning. I didn't know, because it was more of an organic process to find the right frequencies. So, for example, alternate tunings are interesting because then you start to ask, "Why are we using these tunings that became a standard now?" So I mean it in a way of questioning standards.
For example, if you hear, just intonation or a piano that is tuned with just intonation, then some of the thing are going to sound a bit out of tune for you. But, there's beauty there, there's a lot of things that you can explore.
Yeah, it seems in Western music now, particularly the area of experimental music that alternate tunings is starting to become this phrase that comes up more and more. People seem to be less interested in western scales and looking to explore new areas. This is an area you think you'll keep pursuing?
Yeah because I just started to read about it now. As I said, the fact that I used my own tunings in this track was not planned. This is why it's interesting; because this could only have happened because I was using Max and so I was not using or basing the sound on the keyboard. I'm working with frequencies, so you get all these in-between sounds which are not a part of the tone of the standard tuning of a piano. Alternate tunings are not necessarily about non-western scales, actually. sometimes these are older ways of tuning or alternatives that have been overshadowed by the common standard we have now.
And yeah, generally I'm also interested in working with expectation in music, etc. and I think this is interesting for example, to...
I don't do songs, but to think about working with a song format where you expect certain kind of progressions of chords, but then not really going there somehow.
So, building expectation but not necessarily delivering the expected?
Yeah, or playing with it. Because with this quadraphonic performance for example, I have one steady rhythm for each speaker. So, what's happening is that this rhythm is totally static and totally separated from the others. But because the type of sounds are the same, and there are some mathematical relationships between them and your perception is making the glue between them and perceiving it as a whole, for example.
And this experience is based on your expectation and your knowledge of music and the way sounds are supposed to be related to each other.
Yeah. So, are you moving in a way from the Drone works towards stuff that's more rhythmic and quadraphonic or are the Drone works from a few years ago something that's still there?
Yeah, I mean, I consider that I have never really done Drone. I put this hashtag on Soundcloud somewhere for purely practical purposes because it makes it easier for people to find the track. But I don't really categorize myself in a specific genre. But let's say that when I started making music, I thought, "I will go in this direction," and then I took another one. I wanted to work with rhythm for a long time because when I was learning music, I always noticed that it was, that I could feel rhythm easier than feeling melodies and I would understand it better. And also I feel that even if you are doing experimental music – no matter the type of music you do – whenever you have rhythm, people can relate to it. Even if they don't have this education for music that is a little bit more difficult to listen to.
Everybody is able to feel a rhythm, and it's usual that some people start having a natural physical response to that such as nodding their head and so on.
And this, I think, gives you a lot of freedom of experimentation. So I never really intended to really do Drone, per se, I think, in the end. Let's see what I'm gonna do next.
So the drone outcome was an accident?
Nice. So, what are the things that inspire you creatively outside of music? You know, other things that you have going on in life that perhaps feed back into your creative process?
Well it's hard to say exactly because sometimes it's just your daily experience and the way you experience the world. Sometimes you want to just translate a certain feeling in a piece. But I'm inspired also by other types of art. For example, I've always been a big fan of Werner Herzog. One of the most influential things for my work, somehow.
An incredible filmmaker and artist!
I'm quite a narrative person. So I always have stories in my head for what I do, or images. Sometimes, literature as well. And, for example, for this track, you were talking about 'To Whoever Shall Inherit the Earth,' I was thinking of this poem from Bukowski which is called 'The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth.'
So I just had this image in my mind, and then I changed it because the title of this poem, 'The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth,' is actually a quote from the Bible, and I didn't really feel comfortable using that as a title for a track. So I changed it.
You mentioned films by Werner Herzog being an influence. Is there a standout film?
I really like his documentaries, but I remember one of the first films I saw from him that I really liked was Kaspar Hauser. It's a film he did in the 70s, I think.
Actually, the story used is a story that you find in a lot of German movies because it's supposed to be a true story of a child. How do you say, a wild child, or a child that didn't have any contact with humans growing up, and then he has been found as...
I think it's a professor or something like this that is raising him. And what I like there is first he used this actor that is Bruno S., that he used in another movie as well and it's a non-professional actor.
It's just a really special character and really beautiful. Again, this idea of beauty that I like where the person is not a professional actor, so he is not acting in the standard way.
But this truth about him that makes it better than a professional actor.
And I remember a scene from this movie that I really liked where Kaspar is learning how to write and is planting flowers in the garden of the professor. And then, the first thing he does is to write his name with the flowers. And I always saw it as this idea that is...
Because he grew up without language, without humans, so he always saw himself as part of nature, no? And once you learn language and once you learn to think about yourself in this logical way, then you remove yourself from nature. So, it's a way for him to go back there on a symbolical level.
There’s certainly no shortage of inspiration in that world of film and also poetry.
This is maybe due to the fact that there was no scene when I grew up. I mean, I cultivated this interest a little bit in the vacuum somehow, so...
So there was a natural progression of you finding your own creative voice without a lot of external influence?
Yeah. There were a lot of internal – sorry, external – influences as I said, but these were not people...
So you weren’t like, "Oh, the person next door's making cool sounds." It was more the influence was films and literature and poetry.
Yes. Meeting peers only came afterward once I moved to Berlin. In France, I also studied Art History as well. So this is why I learned about a lot of different films. Like architecture as well, we learnt about this, like all the different films.
And then to go ahead and move to somewhere like Berlin, which is just incredibly full of creative people. I can imagine that was quite an experience.
Yes, I think at the beginning, I got lost a bit because it was so much input. But when I think about it, I already had a bit of an aesthetic in mind somehow or a taste. So, I think that helped me to find my way at the end. And then nowadays, I don't go out so much anymore, I don't see so many concerts etc. because sometimes, I need to have this perspective on my work. I think I'm really sensitive also to what you said before, like there's social media, etc. all these inputs and I need to shut myself down. Otherwise, I can't think, I can’t create.
I have this kind of self-regulatory system inside myself where I...
Yeah, I need to live as a hermit in order for me to complete a project.
Because once I started to realize what would perhaps be my voice in music and realize how much satisfaction I was getting from getting a project complete, then this was much more precious than missing a social event or something like that.
Yeah, I mean, I think these days it's really important creatively, to sometimes take that space for yourself and complete something.
Exactly. I think that one of the dangers of this overload of musical information here as well is trends. Because a lot of things are really intense for over six months and everybody talks about it and then it dies. I mean you can't make decisions from this, but I would like to do something that is a little bit, [something] that reaches deeper than just following a trend or a sound. I think that in order to have a perspective on this, it's good to also sometimes remove yourself from the scene a bit.
No, definitely. These days it’s a bit like, "Oh! Jessica hasn't been online for three days. Is she alive still?"
What is on the horizon? Do you have some albums? Are you releasing? Are you playing live? Any installations?
Yes, there is. I'm part of this program called the Incubator Program from Berlin Community Radio. This is going to end soon, but we are supposed to release the track online with them. And this should happen this month or maybe next month. It's not sure yet, because there will be a remix. I think I can say that the remix should be by Jesse Osborne Lanthier.
Wow – Jesse’s work is excellent.
And at the same time, I'm trying to work on enough material for either an EP or a full-length album.
Sounds like you are very busy. It’s been a real pleasure to talk with you Jessica, thank you.
by Tom Hall on
Apr 17, 2018 7:48 PM